October 20, 2016

Victoria Ward

Victoria Ward

Succession planning is something I don’t think anyone thinks about until they are at a certain age or at a certain place in their lives when they realize that they can’t keep doing this (whatever this is) forever. After my parents dying succession was all I cared about – what happens to my work and all my stuff? I was somewhat obsessed and dragged my partner into creating a will with lawyers and everything. This came upon me from realizing in a very real way that once your parents die, you are next.

I am not a parent so I have no idea whether this is a big issue or not if you have kids. I’ve heard a variety of things over the years from parents who are uncertain about their legacies both materially and emotionally. It’s just not anything I know about.

But I do believe that when it comes to art succession is actually extremely important for many, many reasons. Art disappears without some kind of forward thinking and caring just like certain species or tracks of wilderness. We have art galleries that hold our collections of art and books on the lives of artists and they are supposed to be there for future generations. However that is kind of hard to do when your gallery’s collection is routinely on the chopping block or your gallery is not considered worthy of funding or there are no art books stores left. Succession however on a more earthy and present level seems to come in to play when either a greatly admired admin or an artistic visionary gets burned out or dies. At a recent meeting with contemporary artists in Peterborough a participant told an inspiring story about running an art organization that he let die so that it could be reborn with some new blood and ideas. Someone else at the table echoed this and added that they wished a lot of organizations would just die instead of becoming zombies and soaking up funding regardless of their relevance.

Passing the torch or letting something die – it makes for an uncomfotable conversation in the arts sector.  What I keep hearing endlessly is that “we are burned out” “there is no money” “working in the arts today is insane” “our system is broken” etc. etc. I hear a lot of negativity or fake optimism. I rarely hear an honest assessment in the public of the progress people are making – with the exception of some very brave American/European artist friends I know on Facebook who have no trouble mixing things up. It seems to me that we would do well to face our troubles head on; art making and surviving today cannot be sustained through the granting process or through traditional modes of arts support.

Remember this place? I spent hours here discovering Sheile & Cy Twombly. David Mirvish Books RIP

Remember this place? I spent hours here discovering Shiele & Cy Twombly. David Mirvish Books RIP

At this meeting an elder statesman who taught cultural studies for decades reiterated again what I keep hearing (and having been raked over the coals by my own community when I was quoted in a blog by RM Vaughan on arts administration I am loathe to bring it up again, but I will)  is that money in the arts is stuck in a trickle down paradigm helping no one but those at the top level – namely those who work in Canadian Heritage and The Canada Council for the Arts (provincial counterparts are just a lower tier on the fountain of funding). These people do help lots of artists, lots of them, but they do not spread the money far and wide enough and while they continue to receive inflation rated raises our grant money amounts stay static. This is all supposed to change this year and next as both are undertaking sweeping consultations and funding model changes. We’ll see.

More importantly and urgently though is that the way art is being experienced, consumed and viewed is being altered in a mind spinning, myriad of ways. Most arts organizations, institutions and the not-for-profit model are not set up to deal with any of these changes. Take as one example: space. At one time artists could find space but now accelerated gentrification and the ever expanding real estate market here in Canada is making this almost impossible. Artists are moving everywhere to find places they can work, or they are joining collectives or they are just changing the way they work in order to adapt. What would be helpful is if one of these top down government ministries or agencies would kindly step in between artists and developers to help create spaces that work for them. I know there are models out there of this like Artscape & the amazing Cobalt Connects (these guys deserve way more support and recognition) in Hamilton but this isn’t just happening in and around Toronto, its happening everywhere. And this is but one example.

Arts groups, institutions and organizations that can’t adapt to the new normal must really look at themselves in the mirror as I can’t see these challenges stopping or changing any time soon. Perhaps they need to completely redo their mandates or change the way they work or, and I say this with great sympathy, die a dignified death and give someone or something else a shot at helping.

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Victoria Ward

Victoria Ward

I finally got to see The Revenant. This is a movie I was really looking forward to as it was made by the guy who did Birdman and I thought that movie was brilliant. Also, it has a bear in it in a pivotal scene and I loves me a bear taking it out on humans. The movie was so so with acting that ranged from crazy to Yosemite Sam and action scenes so unbelievable that there were times we laughed out loud but… it was entertaining and that bear scene is something to behold.

So… why am I talking about this nutty movie with an extensive gore scene with a bear? Because I so rarely see casual violence I agree with and the premise of the film reminds me of Canadian culture and how artists here feel about their lives. Canadian cultural identity seems to be on a constant cycle of reincarnation. We discuss it, it goes away, we don’t care, it comes back… and so on. Our individual success stories are as sparse as legends of people being lost & surviving the wild. Only a year ago this summer we were in one of these cultural desert moments and treated to an election that was desperately trying to be ‘all American style’; it was really long, had loads of xenophobia and no mention of working people or minimum wage (looking at you NDP).

And then the rain turned to rainbows with Justin Trudeau and we accepted refugees, stood by our Aboriginal peoples and was promised more help for our cultural efforts.  We came back from the dead. I believe this moment of revenant – ness came to its climax mid summer when the cult band the Tragically Hip performed live from their hometown on the CBC our gov’t funded broadcaster. The last time people got together across the country to watch something this Canadian was the final game of our hockey series against Russia in 1972. Back then our teacher pulled the tv into our classroom and we watched in quiet patriotic style, riveted by the prospect that our strong and free nation would win over the tyranny of communism. Yep, it was a thing.

Most of the time Canadians feel like Leonardo Di Caprio's character in this scene.

Most of the time Canadian artists feel like Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in this scene.

The Tragically Hip event however wasn’t sports or even politically motivated. The concert became a spontaneous outpouring of love for music. And it was made by a bunch of nice, kinda’ boring guys from Kingston, one of which is dying at the far too young age of 52 from a rare form of brain cancer. They were playing a last series of live concerts specifically for their fans who have always been loyal and slavish in their devotion. But something happened over the summer, we all wanted in on this love fest. The CBC, an organization recognized universally for their provincial decision making had the entire final concert broadcast from coast to coast with no commercials. Our PM showed up and his hug with lead singer and visibly ill Gord Downie went viral for the authenticity of affection or man love depending on how you swing. As someone who usually hates this kind of big media sentimental love in, I was surprised at how deeply moved I was. This was real. This was a visceral moment that played out as quasi patriotic joy – and even the most cynical among us felt it.

It was a distinctly cultural event founded on a local, grass roots movement. Hip fans created a three decade long cultural industry. Without caring whether their band became as ‘big as Neil’ or that worse musical acts with a less devoted audience made way more money and became way bigger in the US (and now I have to write Nickelback in my blog), Hip fans came whenever the band called, bought their cds, and generally gave our Canadian Radio & Telecommunications Commission great relief as the Hip songs played continually on the radio my entire adult life – until radio went ‘extinct’. I believe it was because of this kind of sterling integrity and authenticity we rallied behind their dying front man and watched with wet eyes as he sang about “that time in Toronto with that checker board floor”. In fact it is lines like this, and unless you are a Canadian music fan you may not understand the reference, that made us all come alive again.

What the Hip did was show us that art is local and made by community, and that being a huge internationally known entity does not engender loyalty or even… fans.

There is a great lesson to be learned from this. You create work and build your audience through the relationship you have with them; you set your sites on working within that community and find joy in this simple approach. Vying to be some kind of global phenomenon that is rootless and invincible isn’t the surest path to impact. Stitching a creative life together with a love of the legends and stories from our shared history and always doing your very best for the people who support you can also be a recipe for making history.

Check out Gord Downie’s new graphic/music novel Secret Path about the residential school system in Canada. He is making the best of the time he has left; very inspiring.